Gideon Levy is a bit of a philosopher king although, sitting in his postage stamp garden in a suburb of Tel Aviv, straw hat shading mischievous dark eyes, there’s a touch of a Graham Greene character about Haaretz’s most provocative and infamous writer. Brave, subversive, sorrowful – in a harsh, uncompromising way – he’s the kind of journalist you either worship or loathe. Philosopher kings of the Plato kind are necessary for our moral health, perhaps, but not good for our blood pressure. So Levy’s life has been threatened by his fellow Israelis for telling the truth; and that’s the best journalism award one can get.
He loves journalism but is appalled by its decline. His English is flawless but it sometimes breaks up in fury. Here’s an angry Levy on the effect of newspaper stories: “In the year of ’86, I wrote about a Palestinian Bedouin woman who lost her baby after giving birth at a checkpoint. She tried at three different [Israeli] checkpoints, she couldn’t make it and she gave birth in the car. They [the Israelis] didn’t let her bring the baby to the hospital. She carried him by foot two kilometres to the Augusta Victoria [Hospital in east Jerusalem]. The baby died. When I published this story – I don’t want to say that Israel ‘held its breath’, but it was a huge scandal, the cabinet was dealing with it, two officers were brought to court…”
Then Levy found ten more women who had lost babies at Israeli checkpoints. “And nobody could care less any more. Today, I can publish it and people will yawn if they read it at all. [It’s] totally normalised, totally justified. We have a justification now for everything. The dehumanisation of the Palestinians has reached a stage in which we really don’t care. I can tell you, really, without exaggeration, if an Israeli dog was killed by Palestinians, it will get more attention in the Israeli media than if 20 Palestinian youngsters would be shot dead by snipers on the fence – without doing anything – in Gaza. The life of Palestinians has become the cheapest thing. It’s a whole system of demonisation, of de-humanisation, a whole system of justification that ‘we’ are always right and we can never be wrong.”
Then Levy goes for the bleeding-heart brigade. “I’m speaking now about liberals. There are those [Israelis] who are happy about any Palestinian death. But the liberals will give you so many arguments just to keep their conscience clean and not to be bothered – ‘You cannot know what happened there, and you have not been there and, you know, you can only see part of the picture…’ And it’s very hard to tell these stories any more, this is the biggest frustration. They see snipers killing a child waving. On TV they show it, snipers killing a nurse in her uniform, a pretty nurse. They see a child of 15 slapping a soldier and going to jail for eight months. And they justify everything.”
You can see why, not too long ago, Levy was given a bodyguard. “You know, Robert, for so many years, they told me: ‘Try to be a little bit more moderate… Say some patriotic things. Say some good things about Israel.’ You know, by the end of the day, we say and we write what we think, and we don’t think about the consequences. And I must tell you, very frankly, the price that a Russian or Turkish journalist is paying today is much higher than any price. Let’s not exaggerate. By the end of the day, I’m still a free citizen and I still gain total freedom, and I mean it: total freedom to write whatever I want, mainly because of my newspaper – which is so supportive.”
“You know, my publisher is maybe the only publisher in the world who is ready to pay millions in terms of cancellations for one article that I wrote, who would tell any subscriber who is mad at me: ‘You know what? Maybe Haaretz is not the newspaper for you!’ Give me one publisher who would speak like this. So I gain full freedom. I say whatever I feel or think.”
Which says something about Israel as well as Levy’s editor. But Israel never escapes his scalpel. “The worst thing that we are fighting is indifference,” he says. “Apathy – which we have so much of in Israel. So if I succeed even to shake them in a way, to freak them out, to be angry with me, to be angry at what I say… you know, many times I think if I make them so angry, it is a sign that somewhere in their consciousness, they know that something is burning under our feet, that something went wrong. But there are times when you are afraid, especially the night before [an article] is published. I always say: ‘Oh, didn’t I go too far this time?’ And then, when I read it back, I always say: ‘I should have been much more extreme!’ I always think I didn’t go far enough.”
Journalism and Israel can be combined in the Levy story. His love-hate relationship with the one can get mixed up with his horror of the path down which his country – to which his parents fled from Europe when it was still Palestine – is now travelling. “The only thing that I really miss – this is very specific to me – my biggest stories were from the Gaza Strip. And I am prevented from going there for 11 years now – because Israel doesn’t let any Israeli into Gaza for 11 years, even if they have dual citizenship. Even if they would open [Gaza], very, very few Israelis would bother to go there. Maybe Hamas would stop them. It’s an Israeli order which Israeli journalists never protested – except me – nobody protested against it. Because they couldn’t care less – they get everything from the [Israeli] army spokesperson – why would they bother to go to Gaza?”
But for Levy, it’s professional. “It’s a very deep loss because the strongest stories were always in Gaza and are still in Gaza. And the fact that I can’t be in Gaza in these days… I mean, I always ask, ‘what is the place you would most like to go to in the world? Bali?’ And I always say the truth. ‘Gaza. Give me one week in Gaza now. And I need nothing more’.”
Blogs don’t have the credibility of newspapers, Levy says. “But I do tell young people – still, if they ask – go ahead. [Journalism] is a great job, a wonderful profession. I didn’t plan to become a journalist. I wanted to become a prime minister. My two first choices were either bus driver or prime minister. Neither worked out somehow. Yes, it’s about leadership. The bus driver is the leader. I mean, you dictate to other people what to do. But I still keep on saying to young people, ‘you will never find such a profession, with so many opportunities. You need only one thing – above all, you need to be curious.’ It’s quite a rare quality, much more rare than you think, because we journalists think that everyone is as curious as we are.”
Pessimism is built into many Israelis, none more so than Levy. “Look, we are dealing now with 700,000 [Jewish] settlers. It is unrealistic to think that anybody will evacuate 700,000 settlers. Without their full evacuation, you don’t have a viable Palestinian state. Everyone knows this and everyone continues with their old songs because it’s convenient to everybody – to the Palestinian Authority, to the EU, to the United States – [saying] ‘two states, two states’, and by this you can continue the occupation for another hundred years, thinking that one day there will be a two-state solution. It will never happen any more. We missed this train and this train will never get back to the station.”
And we come back to Levy on the sins of modern journalism. “Let’s face it – it’s all about social media now. Our journalism is dying. Now it’s all about a very sophisticated tweet. And for a sophisticated tweet, you don’t have to go anywhere – just sitting in your room with a glass of whisky, and you can be very, very sophisticated with some kind of sense of humour, and very cynical – very cynical – because this is maybe the main problem. I mean journalists, so very few of them, really care about something – except being brilliant. I guess there are some exceptions. I don’t see them in Israel. I don’t see them in the West Bank. They are activists but not journalists. There are many young activists, who are adorable.”
Levy agrees that Amira Hass of Haaretz, who lives in the Palestinian West Bank, is his equal, at least in years – he is 65 – and “she really brings journalism one step forward because she lives with them. I think it’s really unprecedented – a journalist who ‘lives with the enemy’. She pays a big price also, in terms of being less relevant here [in Israel] – because of her living there.”
But repeatedly journalism comes under the critical Levy microscope. “We have some young people who would go to war zones – only for the sake of showing their courage. They have been to Iraq, they’ve been to Syria, they’ve been to Iran. Usually, they come back with photos of themselves in the reception of the hotel, or in some kind of so-called battlefield. When I went to Sarajevo in 1993, I went also to look for the injustice there. I didn’t go for just ‘covering the story’. I looked for the ‘evilness’ of a war. I think you saw a lot of evil in Sarajevo. I saw things in Sarajevo that I never saw here – old ladies digging in the ground, for roots to have to eat something. I saw it with my own eyes. Not in the [Israeli] occupied territories – you don’t see it here.”
Foreign correspondents fare little better. “I see journalists, even now, standing by the [Gaza] fence, journalists who can get into Gaza – in those bloody months, with almost 200 unarmed victims – and they stand by the fence, far away. To get into Gaza is not dangerous now for foreign journalists. But I see, even on BBC – and even Al-Jazeera from time to time, Al-Jazeera is much better, obviously – give even their reports from a hill in the south of Israel. And they get some footage, obviously from social media, from local journalists. But it’s not the same.”
As a persistent critic of Israel and the wickedness of its colonial land theft and its vile treatment of the Palestinians, I find myself curiously at odds with Levy – not so much because of his condemnation of journalists, but of his plate-glass shattering of the Israeli window. Would Israeli readers really be more interested in the death of an Israeli dog than the slaughter of 20 Palestinians? Are they as poorly educated as Levy claims? There’s a bit of the “O tempora o mores” element about him.
“Israel is becoming one of the most ignorant countries in the world,” this 65-year old Cicero says. “Someone said it’s better to keep the people ignorant … The young generation know nothing about nothing. Try to talk here with young people – they’ve no idea. The most basic things – ask them who was Ben Gurion, ask them who was Moshe Dayan. Ask them what is the ‘Green Line’. Ask them where is Jenin. Nothing. Even before the brainwashing, the ignorance – part of what they know is totally wrong.”
Talk to the average young Israeli and a European waiter will speak better English, Levy claims. Knowledge of the Holocaust and foreign travel for a young Israeli “will be mainly an experience of a trip with their high school to Auschwitz, where you are being told that power is the only thing which you should possess – military power, that’s the only guarantee, nothing else but military power; and that Israel has the right to do whatever it wants after the Holocaust. These are the lessons. But this is nothing to do with knowledge.”
Yes, says our philosopher king, there is “a narrow level of brilliant intellectuals”, but a recent survey suggested half of Israeli youth receive a Third World education. We – and here I am included in Levy’s generation – came into the world after “very dramatic events”. The Second World War. The foundation, in his case, of the state of Israel. His parents “saved themselves at the last minute”, from Europe.
“There was some historical luggage on our shoulders and no Twitter and no Facebook could delete this. Today it is more empty, finally, in terms of historical events. Even in this region. What is happening here? Nothing – more of the same. Fifty years of occupation, nothing basically changed. We are in the very same framework … sure, more settlements, sure, more brutality and sure, less of a feeling that it’s temporary. It’s very clear now that it’s not going to be temporary. This is part and parcel of Israel.”
I asked Levy if the proportional representation voting system made for hopeless coalition governments in Israel. “What we get is what we are,” he replies dismally. “And Israel is very nationalistic and very right wing and very religious – much more than you think – and the Israeli government is a very good reflection of the Israeli people. And Netanyahu’s the best presenter of Israel. He is by far too educated for Israel – but in his views, this is Israel. Power, power and power – maintaining the status quo for ever, not believing in the Arabs at all. Not believing in any kind of settlement with the Arabs, ever. And living only on our sword, a total state of war.”
Relations with the US are easy. “I’m not sure people are aware now how much Netanyahu dictates American policy. Anything that is decided now – UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine], all the cuts – it comes from Israel. Trump couldn’t care less. You think he knew what UNRWA was before? Racism is now politically correct.” So where did it all go wrong? “First of all, in 1967, that’s the greatest sin. It all starts there. And if you want, you can say 1948 – because 1948 never stopped in 1948. We could really have opened a new chapter.” There are still examples of great men, he insists, even in the world after the Second World War. Mandela, for example.
But Israel’s most irascible and annoying journalist also says “maybe we are too old and we are just bitter and jealous, thinking that we were the best…” At the height of his peroration, just behind us, a huge white cat bounds from the garden hedge in panic, pursued by an even larger grey cat with teeth snapping and hissing, stirring up leaves and dust. The smaller cat, I suspect, represents Levy’s enemies. And despite his 65 years, you can guess who the larger cat reminds me of.